(Photo: Finical Times)
By Rachael Ward – Regular Contributor
What do horoscopes and the Conservative’s levelling up pledge have in common? Both are too vague to mean anything yet vague enough to encompass everything. As the mere skeleton of a levelling up plan is sketched, the ambiguity of the term is its greatest selling point.
Is there anyone who will disagree with the now renowned and overly repeated ‘levelling up’ pledge? The all-encompassing vow to level up the United Kingdom is agreeable rhetoric, but the inclusivity of the phrase and the vacuous agenda to couple it invites critics to indulge in a chorus of disapproval of inequality in any corner.
By promising to level up, in the non-specific way this promise has been made, sets the standards hopelessly high for a government who have made themselves responsible (and open for attack) for any and all unfairness.
The simplicity, yet complexity, of ‘levelling up’ is an oxymoronic problem for a government under pressure to pursue the agenda they entered office with. On prima facie, the plan seems simple. Levelling up must be about the dispersal of opportunity and the ironing out of inequality, right? Do a little digging and things get a bit more complicated.
Firstly, when the precise meaning of the phrase is difficult to determine how will one measure its success? If levelling up refers to the movement of prosperity and opportunity away from London, where to and how? Moreover, what about the so-called left behind parts of London? Whole regions cannot be treated as homogeneous entities if levelling up is a realistic goal. A region-focused plan runs the risk of leaving out the ‘left-behind’ in prosperous areas.
Secondly, the incoherency of the pledge and the plans are a stark complexity for a seemingly simple phrase. One wonders how much a movement of the House of Lords to a northern city, perhaps York, can level up a whole country. A greater curiosity is how a planned £20 cut to universal credit can smooth out inequality. Ministers are well-rehearsed in defending the cut by stating that it was introduced as a temporary measure during the pandemic. A fact that holds truth but little hope for those on the benefit now dependent on the extra money. If levelling up is about the left-behind, the government have a great deal of work left to do.
Ironically, the very essence of the agenda is a counterbalance to a Conservative doing. The Coalition Government and Cameron’s short-lived time in office alone oversaw slashes to social services and austerity cuts, of which communities still bare the bruising from. So, when Johnson soared into office with a historic majority, this can be partly attributed to a promise to undo the work of some former friends who previously sat in office…
Another problem with the pledge is its incompatibility with other proposals. The Government have pledged to invest in towns, cities, rural areas, and the like. Although the opening of the Cumbrian Coal mine would bring hundreds of jobs into the community, the government have stopped short of supporting the mine in fear of a retrograde on environmental ambitions.
The levelling up plan promises to hand some control to different areas over the investment they receive. Then wouldn’t it be best if these regions pulled their own purse-strings? Not according to the devolution-denying government, firm in their detestation of Scottish independence. The recent Downing Street vs. Andy Burnham spat also offers an indication of the Westminster reluctance to hand down more control to regions in need of a little levelling.
Levelling up must also take account for the future. The youth are an indubitably instrumental asset to levelling up and keeping the country level. Yet another influx of summer exams reveals the expected outperformance of independent schools compared to comprehensives, giving a hint towards a not-so-level future. As teacher-assessed grades resulted in a historic boost to A-level results, independent schools saw their top grades shoot up by nine percentage points to 70%, while state schools followed behind with a six-percentage point increase.
Comparison permits some perspective, so how do other parties compare in their proposals to iron out inequalities? While their outright policy is a little lacking, Labour have proposed some plans worthy of attention. Their proposal for a £10 minimum wage is a step in the right direction and although expected, their opposition to slashing universal credit is a promising proposal. Nonetheless, bar Burnham’s cries from Greater Manchester, the party’s indecision over devolution needs a bit of tampering.
Alas, while other parties are content to admit that the U.K is in need of a little levelling, they are not the ones who etched the phrase across their 2019 manifestos. Although fairness and equality are regular rhetoric from Labour and the Lib Dem’s, their policy proposals are not tied to the ominous idiom of levelling up.
In short, the proposals of other parties cannot be used as a comparative scapegoat to avoid scrutiny or precision over the government’s own plans. Living up to levelling up is a Conservative obligation.
The idea of levelling up quickly piqued the interest of the British people and is more appealing faced with the remnants of a Covid-ravaged economy. One would struggle to rally opponents to the cause of levelling up, which explains its victorious electoral edge. The Conservatives stormed through the 2019 election with a resounding victory, in part due to the attraction of this simple slogan. The peddling of this pledge through the streets of Hartlepool continued to help the Conservatives in their recent by-election win.
The phrase is clearly a vote winner, but everyone knows winning votes is merely the beginning of political odysseys.